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Worth a read Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet none will bore the lover of literature. Reading them, one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong April 25, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1 `The Cracked Miniature' (168pp, 1987, 2nd edition, USA) by contemporary poet and prose writer Vehanoush Tekyan is an impressive collection of stories wrought from the horrors of the civil war in Lebanon. Written in the midst of raging battles, exploding bombs and sniper gunfire, these stories feature the lives of Lebanese Arabs, Palestinians and Armenians, combatants and non-combatants, as they are brutalised by the experience of war. With harsh, jagged prose Tekyan pierces the anodyne slogans, the dry and lifeless news headlines and party-ideological constructs that often concealed the human cost of the conflict. The emotional, psychological and physical destruction of war is precisely and movingly communicated. No romantic glorification of war can survive Tekyan's account of the pain of maimed and dismembered combatants writhing in agony as they die a wretched lonely death, or the story of young Hamo, victim to murderous snipers, or that of Frederick Bashara, a gentle millionaire gunned to death as he stops to help someone wounded in a street. A real masterpiece is the `Essence', the briefest of minatures, a mere two and a half pages. Yet it is an unforgettable image of a Palestinian woman Suheylan, tortured and physically broken by Zionist jailers yet still possessed of an indomitable human spirit, courage, conviction and hope. Tekyan's scope is wide, embracing experiences from all walks and classes of Lebanese life. She thus succeeds in presenting an overall picture of the human, social and physical disintegration of the country. An aspect of the Armenian experience is Vahe's story: a portrait of the crisis of national identity experienced by many Armenians evacuating the Lebanon for the USA. Caught in a war they do not consider their own many Armenians on departing to the USA suddenly realise that this breach with Lebanon will also destroy that sense of Armenian identity they had taken so much for granted. They are gripped by remorse and misgiving. But nothing can stem the flight. For the sake of life and the future they must escape the relentless pounding of bombs and mortars and the ever growing threat of hunger and even starvation. The volume is particularly remarkable in its depiction of the powerlessness and despair felt by the non-combatant civilian population. The war impresses itself on them as a raging machine, destructive, criminal, unrelenting. But it is beyond any determination by them. There is a powerful truth to this perception, a recognition of the different experiences of civilian and soldier. But it is not yet the whole truth, for frequently these spheres overlap. Even within Tekyan's stories we see that many of the combatants, some engaged with idealistic hopes for a better future, are the sons and daughters of the civilian population. But they too die horrible, tortured deaths. Tekyan's partial perception of the war determines another absence worth noting: the failure to register, alongside the individual experience, the social and political character of the conflict. For the war, however horrific and eventually brutalising, was a political conflict between the entrenched privilege of the Maronite minority and the just demands of the Muslim majority. Reading these stories it is virtually impossible to perceive the desperation of the Muslim Lebanese in the face of an intransigent Phalange refusal to reform. This unmentioned truth stands as silent refutation of suggestions scattered throughout the volume that the war could have been or should have been resolved by reasoned discussion between contending parties. Nevertheless these moving reconstructions of scenes from the Lebanese civil war are bitter reminders that all war is brutalising and dehumanising. That sometimes there is no other road but war does not detract from its horrors. To be convinced of this read Tekyan's book. * * * * * 2 `An Intimate Portrait of Hagop Baronian' (Marmara, 1965, 81pp, Istanbul) written back in 1965 by Robber Haddejian, an Istanbul-based prolific Armenian writer and newspaper editor remains eminently readable 35 years on. Baronian is our greatest satirist, yet we possess hardly any biographical material on him; virtually nothing in the form of personal memoirs, letters or reminiscences. In an attempt to fill this void Robber Haddejian distils an `intimate portrait' from Baronian's enormous journalistic, literary and artistic output. The attempt is successful. Baronian emerges in his real stature - a giant among mediocrities. Similar in many respects to Khatchadour Appovian or Mikael Nalpantian, Baronian was a staunch supporter of the Armenian national revival from the mid-1850s onwards. He did not posses Nalpantian's polished philosophic and theoretical outlook, but was nevertheless a man of the same mettle: an uncompromising and dogged critic of all social hypocrisy, evil, corruption and immorality. For this, like his two other compatriots from the east, he was persecuted, reduced to poverty, starved and driven to an early death by the Armenian establishment. Haddejian clearly loves his subject and quotes freely and fully to reveal a man who had no time for the romantic inanities of his age. Instead of producing idealised and romanticised images of our history Baronian urged the Armenian intelligentsia to dedicate itself to the practical improvement of the lives of the people. To this end he campaigned in support of a modern written Armenian, cleansed of unnecessary foreign imports, as an instrument of communication with the ordinary people. Baronian was vitriolic and ruthless in his satire, sparing nothing and no one whom he judged to be damaging to the national interest. The corrupt and venal clergy and the greedy moneyed class were the main and constant targets of his acerbic pen. But so too were those Armenian `parliamentarians' and `community leaders' who did nothing but posture and that for no other reason than to secure public applause. He was scathing in his criticism of the fawning and ignorant Armenian intelligentsia and scorned those who expected European powers to resolve the problems facing the Armenian people in the Ottoman empire. Needless to say the ailments Baronian so relentlessly castigated infect social life througout the world to this day. Despite his great admiration for Baronian, Haddejian paints his portrait `warts and all'. He does not shirk from commenting critically on Baronian's one great weakness: his refusal to support equality for women. Haddejian reveals that that despite Baronian's timely attacks on the abuse of cosmetics and the frippery of Armenian 'salon life', he was bigoted and reactionary in his defence of the idea that a woman's place was in the home as a servant to the husband. With this 'intimate portrait' Haddejian has produced one of the best and most lasting introductions to Baronian and his work. Get hold of it if you can. * * * * * 3 `Pages from Medieval Armenian Prose' edited with an introduction by G. Melik-Ohanchanian is a wonderful companion volume to Assadour Mnatsaganian's `Medieval Armenian Folk Poetry' (see Worth a Read March 2000). Two hundred and fifty pages of stories, fables and apocryphal religious anecdotes culled from Armenian language manuscripts from the 14th to the 17th centuries reveal aspects of popular sentiment, morality and psychology which find no reflection in the more august literary works produced by Armenian monasteries who dominated intellectual life during these centuries. Though drawn from manuscripts from the 14th century onwards some of these tales are echoes from even earlier times, being the first written record of word of mouth inheritances from generations gone by. Others are of foreign origin, but so modified to Armenian circumstance that it is almost impossible, and indeed irrelevant, to detect their source. Despite the plebeian nature of the stories they are written with some artistic skill: vibrant with sharp dialogue, imagery, wit and humour. Interestingly a feature common to many is a sarcastic assault on merchants and the clergy who are frequently depicted as hypocrites and crooks. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.